Suggested Reading: The Certain Sound of the Trumpet: Crafting a Sermon of Authority by Samuel D. Proctor
You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)
Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry. We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code. We think about punishment and reward. It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences. Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church. God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution. This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus. It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”
This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better. For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility. And, it is! But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about! Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head. And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath. It was confusing and eventually unsustainable. I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it. Ultimately, that has been to my loss.
I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation. Do good = get good. Do bad = get bad. It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God. If I performed X, I would receive Y. “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers. The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc. The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree. In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose. Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love. Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact. But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it. That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control. Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament. Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.
Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience. It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world. It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive. It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow. It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.
The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey. We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees. And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing. It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed. This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness. Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God. It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion. It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.
In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill. Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world. God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do. In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song. As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.
Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).” We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.” We are God’s poem. Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience. It is a song of beauty. It is a song of redemption. It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.
Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry. Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair. Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry. Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world. Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.
“Let My Life Song Sing to You”
Empty hands held high
Such small sacrifice
If not joined with my life
I sing in vain tonight
May the words I say
And the things I do
Make my lifesong sing
Bring a smile to You
Let my lifesong sing to You
Let my lifesong sing to You
I want to sign Your name to the end of this day
Knowing that my heart was true
Let my lifesong sing to You
Lord I give my life
A living sacrifice
To reach a world in need
To be Your hands and feet
So may the words I say
And the things I do
Make my lifesong sing
Bring a smile to You
Let my lifesong sing to You
Let my lifesong sing to You
I want to sign Your name to the end of this day
Knowing that my heart was true
Let my lifesong sing to You
Let my lifesong sing to You
There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society. Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors. There are many reasons for the anxiety. A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress. (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).
There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders. The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels. Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary). The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success. And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored. If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question. Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development. But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.
This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church. I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either. There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation. If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models. The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income. Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires. Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).
But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches. In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise. Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.
Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died. Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily. Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction. In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community. This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion). By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment. The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress. It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism). We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution. Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.
The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches. In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship. It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy. Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress. So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors). To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality. Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling. Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper. Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate. It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).
But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities. But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure. But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine. In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”
It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope. To preach Good News in communities that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage. To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care. To imagine that greatness is in serving. To believe that death may be a new beginning. To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path. To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses. Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome. I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds. But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches. And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.
To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14. A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments. Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy. Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are. If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory. Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome. Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.” Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work. Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.” The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.
There is fear that is not fear
There is faith that is not faith
There is hope that is not Hope
There is peace that is not Peace
There is success that is not Success
There is failure that is not Failure
There is presence that is not Presence
There is absence that is not Absence
There is victory that is not Victory
There is defeat that is not Defeat
There is life that is not Life
There is death that is not Death
For our eyes see but do not see
Our ears hear but do not hear
Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend
The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up
Towers rise to pierce the sky
Build taller, build more
Look, how grand the work of our hands
Build taller, build more
The Sky is the no limit; we dare not restrain
Until at last, bright shines our name
Build taller, build more
The foundation cracks; our words become babble
The tower turns to dust and rubble; we become scattered rabble
Build taller, build more – the seductive call
No matter its promise, brings ruin to all
Pastors tend to live between the world of idealism and reality. Perhaps the majority of theologians (both academic and otherwise) live within this liminal space as well. It is this thin margin between envisioning what might be and observing the reality of the facts on the ground. Most of the time they don’t align. Inevitably, this creates a kind of dissonance within us as we strive toward the future we sense can happen and the hurdles that seem to impede the possibility of arriving at that place of hope. This might be easily dismissed if it is only the pastor or theologian’s vision of the future. However, there are times where the hope moves beyond mere idealism, rising out of a life of study, prayer, and discernment of the Kingdom-shape in which God is molding a community. The tension between the now and not-yet is sharpened when God is the One shaping the vision.
Of course, there are plenty of situations we can point to where “leaders” have claimed to know what God wants and it later came to light that God probably didn’t have much to do with the vision in the first place. There have been plenty of abuses of power in this regard. While not dismissing the possibility of abuses of leadership, I want to focus on those particular moments where the vision really is from God and the leader(s) is in alignment with what God desires. In those moments of seeing what can be and what God desires while facing the reality that we aren’t there yet can spiral into an abyss of defeat, demoralization, and despair. This is especially true when there is strong opposition to the vision from others. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside pressures on the Church, sometimes from within the Church. By leaders I don’t mean ministers exclusively. Ministers can sometimes be the biggest opposition to God’s vision. After all, we’re finite creatures with limited perspective, too. Regardless of the source, these barriers to the new future can create deeper tension within the leaders and communities vying for that future.
Sometimes those barriers to God’s new future are minimal and easily scaled. However, there are times where the opposition is fueled by fear and selfishness. What might have been an easy hurdle begins to look more like an impenetrable fortress, a Berlin wall of refusal to move or budge toward God’s future. Then, there are those that actively pursue counter action. Not only do they dig their heels in, they begin to tug in the complete opposite direction. It may be from good intentions, but it can be devastating to a community. Although it may be frustrating when people are hesitant to walk with you toward a new future, it is absolutely painful when there is intentional, perhaps malicious, energy aimed at working against you. Again, it is easy to despair of seeing God’s new future come to fruition.
The reception of God’s promised hope for a new future brings about energy and joy in those that receive it. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities. But, without fail, God’s promises always find themselves threatened, teetering on the edge of the precipice of failure. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Problem: Abraham and Sarah are old and barren. God’s promise doesn’t seem so sure when Sarah is 90 and Abraham looks like he’s about to kick the bucket. God’s covenant-promises to Abraham’s family appear doomed when Esau trades his inheritance for some “red stuff” to his manipulative brother. Jacob has to run into hiding for being a deceptive cut-throat. So much for God’s promise to bless others through this family that doesn’t even get along. Further down the line, God’s covenant-promise is again threatened when Abraham’s descendants find themselves in the land of Pharaoh making bricks as slaves. Pharaoh tries to extinguish their family tree by killing off their young boys. You can’t be a numerous people if you are enslaved and then killed. The stories continue over and over again. God’s promise is constantly under threat of extinction. Barrenness, infidelity, murder, foolishness, idolatry, destruction, death, exile, and crucifixion attempt to derail God’s promises from finding their fulfillment. Yet, in each moment where God’s promises edge close to disaster, even certain doom, God manages to bring about those same promises, despite the incredible opposition to God’s new future, both from God’s people and from the others.
When God’s promises appear to hang by one finger on the edge of a cliff with jagged rocks below, our reaction is to wonder if it’s even possible. The writing is on the wall and we can’t conceive of any way forward. We are at the end of our creative and motivational capacity. The temptation is to focus so intently on the things that threaten God’s new future that we cease to focus on the God that has promised that new future. Perhaps I’m more egotistical than most and so I think I should be able to accomplish the task at hand. When I fail my attitude sinks because I see the divide between where we should be and where we are and my inability to span the gap. It’s quite possible that those are the very moments where I have become the biggest barrier to God’s new future because I am consumed with what now appears to be the impossibilities of God’s promised future. It’s impossible, therefore, why try? Or, the future is dependent on me, so force the issue. Both culminate in similar experience. I find myself sitting on the sidelines soaking my hurts in the cynicism of despondency. The subtle shift of hoping in God’s promise to a prideful hope in our own capabilities inevitably falls short and concludes in hopelessness.
Advent brings us right into the frustration and conflict. It thrusts us right into the middle of our hopelessness and our closed off futures. We are confronted with our fears and failures. Advent reminds us that God accomplishes God’s promises in God’s time – in the fullness of time. Like a pregnancy, you can’t rush the gestational time required to give birth to new life. As such, we are called to enter into the waiting – that necessary space where we learn to trust, hope, and act in abiding faithfulness – not because of our capabilities to enact a new future but because of God’s promises. And, like the stories where God’s promises always appeared on the verge of disaster, we are brought into the canonical (read scriptural) imagination which says God accomplishes that which God promises from the beginning. As Zechariah 9:12 states, “Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles.” When vision and reality are separated by a chasm, remember the One who has bound us in hope and return to that firm foundation.
My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet. Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet. It was the runt of the litter, rather small. We named it “Wilbur.” It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath. FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time. If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned. So, bath day came. We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing. Wilbur had a different idea. He didn’t care for the bathtub. Maybe it was the water. Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub. Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath. He began to freak out, squealing and squirming. Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side. It was a disaster. Water was everywhere. Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean. Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.
Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth. The season of Advent lodges us between these two events. As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.” As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God. The time is coming, says Jesus. Prepare. The time is drawing near, says Jesus. Be ready. The day is on the doorstep. Be prepared – “wash your robes.”
If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness. Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see. What would it say? If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party? No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs. But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing. We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it. Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.
Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean. Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn. Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments. Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em. We look worse for the wear. The mud of lust cakes the sleeves. The dirt of gossip smudges the collar. Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems. Anger tears apart the seams. The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread. Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric. Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust. Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King. “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”
Do you know the key for clean clothing? Two things: Clean water and agitation. Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes. Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death. We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor. We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things. Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.
Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God. These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all. Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls. Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God. In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound. This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags. To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.
Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes. Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation. People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks. Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material. Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning. Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation. Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation. If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.
Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom. Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness. We’re still waiting for the final unveiling. Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living. Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.
And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question. Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success. EVERYTHING! The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.
Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence. Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution. Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh. Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much. Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear. Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies. Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around. Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.
Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down. Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated. We begin to change – little by little. The stain of discontent begins to fade. Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence. The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace. Greed is washed out with self-giving love. Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride. The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives. So…
The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne
 Revelation 22:12a, 14a.
 Revelation 22:17, 20-21
 Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”
Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation. Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about. They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons. Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church. It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation. There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.” I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still. But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility. After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.
Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them! Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.” Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go. But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.” I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness. Is divorce still an issue? Yes, definitely! But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation. In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce! This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.
I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors. Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible! Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory. There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.
One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need. Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel. Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs. Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.
This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers. I really don’t believe that to be true. Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete. I have often found the contrary to be true. Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body. But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.). If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies? But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).
If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness. It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it. There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.” Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye). Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another. As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”
The wounding of one another is astonishing. I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue. I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!). I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants! I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain. Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.
As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict. They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues. These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel. It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.
Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom. I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree. Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me. And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me. When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”